Secondary parent. It is a phrase I learned in second grade after my parents’ divorce, an age that was far too young for understanding but I knew the meaning. It meant I didn’t see my dad half as much as I once did, now instead of every day it was every other weekend and on Wednesday nights. Eight days a month, 96 days a year for the next 11 years. It meant my dad was not my primary parent, because my mom held that title, or at least that’s what was in the legal documents. It meant that I missed my dad a lot and I felt like he didn’t want to see me. It meant I started to treat him like he was my secondary parent because the legal documents, teachers, and doctors who read my files all said so. He had to defer to my mother, my legal guardian, and the woman he was divorcing… and boy did that create a power imbalance. It meant he started to treat me like his secondary life as he started a new one. A new life that I only visited. Because that is what my dad had, visitation with me, not custody. A complete outsider. I resented his new life because like the Court said, I was not his primary responsibility, thus his life was not my primary life. That life, belonged to my step-siblings and to my step-mother and to my dad, but it was only secondarily mine.
I am a child of divorce, divorced and a divorce attorney. As an only child of divorced parents in a small North Carolina town, my parent’s divorce was riddled with conflict between the two of them and with me. My parents’ divorce was contentious due to a culture that this country and the state of North Carolina created. The state has struggled for decades with the concept of shared parenting. It has slightly improved since my experience, yet children are still facing the same struggles that I dealt with 20 years ago. Shared parenting improvements in North Carolina are necessary and possible through increasing knowledge about the Collaborative Law process, shared-parenting legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly with the help of the local National Parents Organization Chapter, and encouraging companies to support their employees through divorce.
During my parents’ divorce I became a title, a calculation of support, a subject of controversy, and a source of conflict for my parents. Throughout my career I was able to match the issues of my childhood with the holes, games, and tactics I was starting to see within the family court system. I identified where the broken system started and who was contributing to it. I realized that my parents were not bad people, they were just following the system. I realized where a lot of my own issues started and I wrote a book describing all that I found to create awareness. Parents of that generation are in the same position of parents from the 1960s who put their children in cribs with lead paint. They didn’t know the effects and statistics, if they did they surely would have changed their behavior. Currently, if two people are divorcing a community expects conflict, court trials, subpoenas, witnesses, and therapy records. We see it on television, with our friends, at work, and within our families. This expectation leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict. Parents are very capable of being cordial if they understand the risk of the alternative. I see it every day in collaborative. In the alternative, it is evident that the family court system is broken. Everlasting dockets reflect that and in turn children are left holding the bag of scars. Courts move on, parents move on but the children carry it with them forever. Children of the traditional litigation divorce model commit suicide 30% more, are addicted to substances and alcohol 18% more and divorce at an alarming rate or do not get married at all. A 35-year longitudinal study shows children are broken from divorce. Broken from the conflict. In my professional experience as an attorney, this conflict begins in a large part with an unwarranted primary/secondary title and is fanned by the family court system and divorce attorneys.
As a collaborative law attorney, who focuses on divorce, conflict resolution, and shared parenting, my mission is to change divorce culture so the next generations avoid what I experienced as a child, teenager, and for the rest of my life. My mission is that of change and integrity. A collaborative divorce is a session-driven dispute resolution process which is less destructive to children and less stressful on external relationships, friendships, and careers. This type of resolution keeps families out of a volatile courtroom. Children are not meant for that type of environment. In court, children are often seen as a bargaining chip, property, or a possession instead of a child with real emotions. Collaborative Law helps parents realize that despite their personal differences, they can agree that their children’s feelings and needs should come first during their divorce. This sets up the ideal relationship for shared parenting and an overall happier family relationship.
Unfortunately, even though collaborative is spreading, most divorces involving children in North Carolina still happen in the traditional divorce system where shared parenting is not a priority. The new D+ report card rating in North Carolina by the National Parent’s Organization reflects that. However, change is near with the dramatic increase of collaborative family law exposure within the state and the incorporation of collaborative into the NC General Statutes, allowing parents to settle outside of court in an efficient process. Additionally, the North Carolina Collaborative Attorney Network (NC-CAN), a not-for-profit with a mission to spread awareness of the collaborative and non-court options around divorce within the state, was formed in 2017. Collaborative alone is not enough as the goal is total awareness. Shared-parenting statutes would greatly decrease the conflict between parents at the outset. Reducing the perceived need for attorneys and court intervention. Thus, here in North Carolina, we are starting to draft a bill for shared parenting to be presented before state lawmakers with the help of the local chapter volunteers within the National Parents organization.
Those experiencing divorce or custody issues are not the only ones that need awareness. The ripple effect of the exposure to divorce culture calls for attention from everyone, not just those currently going through divorce. Business is affected daily by productivity loss and removal of employees who are entrenched in long legal battles, not to mention the subpoena expenses. Companies are realizing through the efforts of AN|R Law and The Cure for Divorce Culture that these numbers represent many of their employees’ past, current, or future experiences. Those who are experiencing the process of divorce or custody issues need more support than ever from their employer. During times of crisis, employees should know they can turn to human resources departments for advice, guidance, or information. Human Resource departments need to be prepared to help with resources that are beneficial for the employee, the family, the company and society.
North Carolina can improve its current D+ in the Shared Parenting Report Card rating if parents have the resources to choose the right attorney, legislators pass laws to encourage shared parenting, and companies find ways to support their employees experiencing divorce. Together, we can standardize shared parenting in North Carolina and incite transformation nationwide. Just imagine the conflict that would not have existed if from the beginning my parents knew they were 50/50 equal parents as soon as someone moved out, just as they were equal parents in creating me. There would have been no tug of war for primary versus secondary and I would not have been the rope. They would have followed the law. What if my parents entered the already sad world of divorce on equal footing as co-parents, instead of boxers coming out for the fight, sitting in their separate corners while I was sitting on the sideline watching every verbal sparring? A quick, 20,000 ft look at that picture gives a pretty clear perspective. To change a culture of divorce and custody toward shared parenting, we need to change our expectation of parents and society. Parents have the right to choose the process of divorce they want and they are fully capable with the right information. Instead of expecting conflict, lets expect integrity from everyone, especially the attorneys.
Ashley-Nicole Russell, Esq